Jail Break!

Jail Break!
2-5-06
Douglas Taylor

The first time I went to visit someone in prison I was surprised at how much it reminded me of a modern McDonald’s.  I guess I expected something with more steel and less plastic, something grey and dingy.  The visiting room has what looked to me like a lunch counter with seats on both sides and short glass wall running through the middle.  The glass only goes up a foot or so and you can reach over to shake hands or even hug the person you are visiting, something the rules say you can do as you begin your visit and again when you end your visit.

I wonder, how many of you have ever visited someone in jail or prison?  Broome County Council of Churches has a jail ministry program that includes visitation, and the NAACP does advocacy for imprisoned African Americans.  I imagine most of us who have been to the prison have been to visit someone through these programs.  But then I could be way off base, perhaps there are many of you who have had a friend or family member in jail or prison.  And I know there are a handful of you who have been in jail or prison.  My sermon this morning is not really addressed to issues of prisoners of conscience, people arrested for civil disobedience.  Rather I am addressing issues related to people who are in jail or prison because they have broken a law that is a good and just law.  I am in favor of prisons but am frustrated with a broken system that continues to fail at fulfilling all but its crudest of functions.

When I as a parent need to punish my child, I do so not to exact revenge, not to make the child suffer, not to make an example of him or her for others.  I do it to educate and redeem the child.  Certainly a “time-out” serves to remove the “offender” from the situation but it also gives the child time to cool down and think through what went wrong.  Can you imagine a criminal justice system where we actually tried to do the follow-up steps of education and redemption with our incarcerated brothers and sisters?  Can you imagine a system built on restoration and reconciliation rather than on just locking them up and forgetting about them?

The Newsweek article by Polites that we used for a reading this morning drew several letters to the editor.  It was actually these letters that caught my eye, leading me to search back to find the original article.  One letter in particular stood out to me as a very even handed response.  Michael Hollingshead writes,

Olga Polite’s personal account of tragedy is more than compelling.  She reminds us that it’s one thing to oppose the death penalty on “Higher Moral” grounds, but another to experience such a dramatic personal loss firsthand.  Indeed, I believe that any and all of us who are anti-death-penalty activists would do well to also join a victims’ rights group to, at the very least, get a better grip on the wider experience.  (2-6-06, p22)

One of the key pieces I think needs to be remembered is that it is not principles and issues at stake; it is not statistics and ideology being measured and politely discussed.  We’re dealing with actual people, with actual human beings who have been incarcerated and actual people who are victims of the crimes for which people have been incarcerated.  We are dealing with more than politics; we are dealing with the theology of human nature, and the nature of good and evil.  Are we basically good people who do bad things under certain circumstances, or are we basically bad people who can be compelled to do good things under certain circumstances?  Can we divide the population into good people and bad people?  What is our responsibility to our brothers and sisters?  Can people change?

Historically both Unitarianism and Universalism have offered affirmative and theologically grounded answers to these questions.  We have long felt the draw to lift our hands and voices to champion justice in the land.  And historically even this very issue has long been a concern among us.

In 1857, the Universalist Convention adopted a sweeping statement for reform.  A General Reform Association was created and they attempted to address Slavery, Women’s rights, Temperance, and Prison reform just to name a few.  The Universalists of that time were committed to the implications of a theology that claimed all people were members of one human family.  The reformers saw that all people were worthy of being included in the plan for salvation, and not just in the next world, but (as they said,) “insofar as possible, in this world as well.”

In the late eighteenth century, Benjamin Rush had argued forcefully on theological grounds for the better treatment of prisoners, including the elimination of the death penalty:

A belief in God’s universal love to all his creatures, and that he will finally restore all those of them that are miserable to happiness, is a polar truth.  It leads to truths upon all subjects, more especially upon the subject of government.  It establishes the equality of mankind – it abolishes the punishment of death for any crime – and converts jails into houses of repentance and reformation.

(from The Larger Hope by Charles Howe, p58-9)

And Reverend Charles Spear and his wife are remembered for thirty years devotion to a prison ministry.  Spear visited prisoners, taught Sunday School classes, gave lectures on reform, helped those recently released to adjust, and for over 15 years published the Prisoner’s Friend which was advertised as “the only journal known in the world that is wholly devoted to the Abolition of Capital Punishment and the Reformation of the Criminal.”  Rev. Spear and his wife lived in poverty most of their days, but were generally supported by their fellow Universalists.

On the Unitarian side of the family, Dorothea Dix is remembered for her tireless scouring of the Massachusetts jails, prisons, and poorhouses for people with mental illnesses.  The conditions in the jails and correctional facilities were atrocious and after a year and a half of personally visiting each one and writing extensive notes, Dix convinced the state legislature to provide for the present situation and for the future accommodations.  Her efforts ushered in sweeping reforms in that state, and in the several other states she went to next including New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Jersey.  At Dix’s funeral they read the passage from scripture: “I was hungered and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty and ye gave me drink; I was stranger and ye took me in; naked and ye clothed me; I was sick and ye visited me; I was in prison and ye came unto me.”

Prison reform and the abolition of the death penalty have long been seen as special justice issues in need of our voices from within the ranks of Unitarianism, Universalism, and now from within the merged Unitarian Universalism.

This past summer in Fort Worth, TX, the general Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association passed its annual Statement of Conscience.  This year it was titled “Criminal Justice and Prison Reform.”  This Statement of Conscience business is basically a process designed to engage the whole of Unitarian Universalism in a process of justice making.  It is a two year process stating with a big vote to select a topic.  In 2003 there were about five options, all of them worth deeper study and engagement.  What persuaded me, and perhaps enough others, was when a representative from the Youth Caucus spoke at the microphone in favor of the Prison Reform topic.  The Youth Caucus had considered the various options and decided to put their voices and votes toward the issue of Prison Reform because they saw it as a grave concern for the future of our nation.  I have a personal commitment to always listen to youth when they speak of the future.

We have 2.2 million people in prisons and jails, as a ratio of incarcerated people to the whole population that is a huge number.  Our ratio is the highest in the world.  The United Kingdom has the highest ratio among European Union nations, and the U.S. ratio is five times greater.  You would think that would be seen as a problem.  Another startling statistic is that 50% of incarcerated people are African American.  African Americans make up only 13% in general population.  Is it not clear simply from the statistics that something is wrong?

But then, it is not statistics and ideology at the center of our discussion.  We’re dealing with actual people; we are dealing with the theology of human nature.  As Unitarian Universalists we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  That includes every person who has hurt, terrorized, or killed another person.  That is not to say that the cruel, unrepentant, sadistic killer has a nice and happy person hidden deep inside just waiting to be loved.  Certainly not!  It does mean, however, that even the worst criminals you could meet are still human beings, no less than fellow human beings.  It means that even the worst criminals you could meet are worth the effort simply because they are human.

“Redemptive justice recognizes justice as relational.  Its purpose is to restore wholeness and rightness in the social order and in the disposition of the offender, not to exact revenge.”  That is from the UUA Statement of Conscience.  Redemption is not a goal of our current prison system.  Justice is relational.  It is about how we relate to each other.  Our prison system should work to restore and redeem the prisoner and society.

“Rehabilitative Justice is a process of education, socialization, and empowerment of the person to the status whereby she or he may be able to contribute constructively and appreciably to society.”  That is another quote form the Statement of Conscience.  There are three of these: Redemptive, Rehabilitative, and Restorative; all of which out current prison system should do, but does not.

“Restorative justice is a process whereby the offender can reconcile with the victim through appropriate restitution, community service, and healing measures.”  Now, when I say our current prison system “never” works to be redemptive, rehabilitative, or restorative I am certainly exaggerating.  But the efforts our current system puts forth are such failures we must recognize that institutions are inherently resistant to change and reform.  I don’t know if these are strict definitions, but they all sort of mesh together in my memory: to restore, redeem and rehabilitate, is to bring the individual back into right relationship through education and restitution.  Instead what we do is close people off, shut them in with their poisonous anger and hurt.  Instead of recognizing the possibility of change, we assume it is too late and so simply send them away so we don’t have to think about it.

In a book Prayers for a Planetary Pilgrim, Father Edward Hays offers this prayer called Prisoner’s Psalm:

I am your caged brother/sister/ friend:

                        A criminal, yes, …

You’ve excommunicated me for life

Into a warehouse of unwanteds …

You’ve sent me to this walled hospital

                        Where you say that I’ll be cured,

                        But this is no place of healing

                        Or even of rehabilitation,

                        But rather it is a guarded schoolhouse

                        Whose crowded classroom cells

                        Teach a wild wisdom

                        That you and I both know

                        Is poison to the touch.

I remember talking to a man in prison.  We had struck up a relationship that we maintained for a while well he was Downstate.   He spoke of the difficulty of keeping a hardened exterior against that poisonous atmosphere, while somehow maintaining a transformed soul inside, where kindness is seen as a weakness.  He told to me about seeing the Northern Lights through his small cell window one night.  He was just stunned and climbed up to get a good look, crouching up by the window for several long minutes as the sky exploded with waves of brightness.  A few minutes later, he had found one of the guards and pointed it out to him.  The guard was just as stunned by the overwhelming beauty of the Aurora Borealis.  Together they stepped out into the open of a small landing to get a better look.  The guard said something about how he shouldn’t let my friend out on the landing like that – shouldn’t be standing this close to him, basically that the guard was putting himself in a compromised position.  But sometimes the grace and beauty of the world will grab you and the only adequate response is to find someone else to share it with.

So, what, as people of faith, can we do about the failure of our criminal justice system?  There is much we could do.  First I want you to think about this though.  Three weeks from now we are hosting a forum, Feb. 26th, Kevin Wright from Binghamton University will speak about prison reform more clearly than I could hope to.  And our own Social Responsibility Committee is work on issues around torture.  If you can find it within you to put some energy toward this work, I commend the NAACP and the Broome County Council of Church’s prison ministry program.  I also know there is a pen pal program through the UU Church of the Larger Fellowship which I could tell you more about.  What can we, as people of faith, do about this unjust justice system?  Perhaps the simplest action is to remember that it is our brothers and sisters we have shut away, to remember and not forget them or give up on them.

In a world without end

May it be so.